• Baroque Rocks

I’ve just returned from recording another interview for BBC Radio 3, this time for The Early Music Show.  I almost didn’t make it, as I thought it began an hour later than it did and it took a wild cross-country dash to Radio Devon in Plymouth to get me into the studio only 15 minutes late.  Not 20th-century Polish music this time, but a recording of Polish gems from the Baroque period. I was probably brought in only because I can pronounce the composers’ names …!  It was fun talking with Lucie Skeaping and no doubt the producer Chris Wines will make sense of my bzdura (gobbledegook).

I am constantly amazed by the richnesses of Polish music before 1750.  The great misfortune is that most of us never hear it.  Why?  Well, so little has survived multiple acts of war (notably World War II), so little was printed at the time, and very few CDs and scores make it outside Polish borders today.  When a rare concert of early Polish music takes place, do go, as you will be astonished by its beauty and vitality.  Happily, Radio 3 picked up a concert given by the Retrospect Ensemble at last year’s Lufthansa Festival in London and is broadcasting most of it on The Early Music Show – alongside another concert of early Polish music – on Saturday 25 and Sunday 26 February, 13.00-14.00:

Adam Jarzębski (before 1590 – after 1648): Canzon quinta
Mikołaj Zieleński (c.1550 – c.1616?): Domus mea
Stanisław Sylwester Szarzyński (fl.1692 -1713): Iesu spes mea
Adam Jarzębski: Chromatica
Damian Stachowicz (1658-99): Veni consolator
Grzegorz Gerwazy Gorczycki (1665(7?)-1734): Completorium

Jarzębski has left only 27 compositions, all instrumental.  He was a talented man: composer, violinist, poet, author of the first ever guide to Warsaw, and architect to the king.  The title of his Chromatica reveals its unexpectedly dark heart, which seems to have sprung from a madrigal [the automatic spell-checker ‘corrected’ this to ‘marital’] by Monteverdi or Gesualdo.  All that’s missing is an Ohime! or two.  Here’s a video which aptly counterpoints the music with pictures of the Ujazdowski Palace just outside Warsaw’s city centre.  In Jarzębski’s time, it would have been in the country.  Its appearance today is rather more developed than it was when Jarzębski was its Intendant of Works.

The vocal pieces in the broadcast are very varied, ending with one of the glories of the Polish Baroque, Gorczycki’s Completorium, with its inspired mix of stile antico and stile moderno.  For now, here’s one of the other great beauties of this period, Iesu spes mea by Szarzyński.  This Cistercian monk left barely a dozen pieces, but this is a real jewel.

It’s particularly interesting because it is based on a Polish hymn for the dead and does interesting things with the tune.  Here’s the original hymn – Przez czyśćcowe upalenia – and translation of the first verse:

Through purgatorial fires (Przez czyśćcowe upalenia)
Which take away the sins (Którzy gładzą przewinienia)
Shedding tears without consolation (Łzy lejąc bez pocieszenia)
They beg Your mercy (Żebrzą Twego użalenia)
O Mary! (O Maryja!)

Szarzyński takes this, puts it into 3/4 with the first downbeat on the first Bb, and ornaments it.  The hymn itself is strangely constructed in its phrasing (though it’s quite typical for Polish hymns and folk tunes), but Szarzyński does wonderfully unexpected things with it.  The soprano’s first entry – ‘Jesus, my hope, my comfort’ (Iesu spes mea, Iesu solarium meum) – has two four-bar phrases followed by a five-bar phrase, and this fluid approach continues once the two violins enter.  Yet such ‘irregularities’ seem relaxed and unforced.  I particularly like the contrasting. almost desperate urgency of the middle section, with its repeated alliteration – ‘In you will I hope, to you will I cry out, I will sing to you, I will adore you, I will beseech you, I will give you my heart’ (In te sperabo et reclamabo, tibi cantabo, te adorabo, te invocabo, tibi cor dabo).

This concert performance by the Polish group Risonanza is a bit slow for my taste, there is some audience noise, and the camera position means that the vocal soloist is mostly out of sight … But listen to Retrospect Ensemble on 26 February for a really tight interpretation and a fantastic diminuendo at the very end.

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